This weekend in Derby one of the UK’s newest and most exciting film festivals returns for a third year. ID Fest, held at the QUAD, is a celebration cinema, featuring screenings of old classics and modern favoruites, industry panels and special guests speakers, as well as general film-themed events. Based on last year’s outing, it’s a terrific amount of fun, and this year’s programme is shaping up to be every bit as exciting. Below are a few of my picks of the weekend’s highlights, to book tickets and for more info head over to www.idfest.co.uk.
The theme at ID Fest 2013 is family. Gazing over the programme, the selection of events and screenings could hardly represent a more eclectic and interesting take on that topic. Two screenings that I must point you in the direction of right away are The Godfather (Saturday, 2pm) and The Royal Tenenbaums (Saturday, 6.55pm), both of which I will be providing an introduction to. I’ll only be talking for a few minutes about the films and their respective relations to the weekend’s theme, but if you’d like to see me wax a little lyrical, head on over for that day.
Elsewhere in the programme there will be numerous special events held throughout the weekend. One of the most recognisable faces to be in attendance will be Terry Jones, the Monty Python star will be in conversation before a screening of The Meaning of Life (Friday, 7pm). There will also be a celebration of the life and career of Alan Bates (Saturday, 8pm), who passed away ten years ago this year. Dame Janet Suzman, Alan’s brother Martin and Mark Woolgar will comprise a panel that will be chaired by exceptional film journalist Scott Jordan Harris, who you will recognise from The Telegraph and Radio 4 (You can also find him on Twitter by clicking here).
One of Sunday’s highlights will undoubtedly be the Short Film Showcase, which this year consists of a varied selection of shorts from around the world; there will also be an opportunity to cast a vote for your favourite. And make a note not to miss the OST DJ night on Saturday evening, held in the cafe bar from 8.30pm, featuring a 30-minute playlist designed by yours truly.
Derby ID Fest 2013 promises to be the best incarnation of the festival yet, for fun and frolics all film-related head over to www.idfest.co.uk to book your tickets.
Man of Steel gets a great new teaser trailer below…
I do love a good Sci-Fi!
I’m a big fan of documentaries. If there were a film version of Desert Island Discs, where the accepted luxuries included a television, DVD player and a portable power source, my discs would probably be 50% factual. There’s something about a gripping narrative being created from real events that adds another layer of intrigue, I guess that’s why so many films nowadays are prefaced, no matter how accurately, with the line based on a true story.
A couple of months ago I wrote about Pumping Iron, the bodybuilding doc starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, I’m again looking at factual cinema for this week’s editorial. My focus is one of the finest documentaries released last year, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, the remarkable story of unheralded musician Sixto Rodriguez. I first caught it at Sheffield DocFest in 2012 (one of the UK’s best film festivals, maybe the best) and it was obvious that it would be a hit. It’s uplifting, fantastically made and beautiful, both visually and, more importantly, thematically. On that day the audience were delighted to such an extent that there was a substantial standing ovation, and it had a similar reaction at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there. Over the course of the year the accolades began to pile up, eventually amounting to a thoroughly deserved Oscar win; this was a real success story.
While it’s very easy to sing the praises of Searching for Sugar Man, that is not the purpose of this editorial. The purpose will be to think about the film in a critical context. Having recently finished a rewatch, a thought struck me that had originally crossed my mind in Sheffield, a day or so after my first viewing. There’s no doubting the qualities of Sugar Man, the reaction of audiences everywhere has put paid to any debate over whether it’s a successful movie, but I have been musing over the following question – Is Sugar Man a good film, per se, or is it a good story? Was the film destined to be good purely because the source material is so remarkable, or is the remarkable nature of the story accentuated by quality filmmaking? In a wider context, should we judge a documentary primarily on its craft, or on the strength of its subject matter? If a filmmaker takes a less marketable story and makes it into an interesting film, is that more commendable?
Before we go any further, I’d like to suggest that if your knowledge of Searching for Sugar Man is limited, you should stop reading and go pick up a copy. Not only is it a great movie, but the fresher you approach it the more enjoyment you’ll receive in return. That’s not to say it doesn’t reward repeat viewings, it does, but you won’t forget that first time.
The story of Rodriguez is, to use the well-worn phrase, stranger than fiction. An anonymous bricklayer in his native America and a rock star on the other side of the globe, it’s difficult to imagine such a stark contrast. If you wanted to make a fictional film of a similar ilk, it’s unlikely you’d come up with a more mystifying and unlikely tale. In fact, I’d venture as far as to say that if you did manage to replicate this story using only your imagination, you’d probably deem it too far-fetched and consign it to the recesses of your brain. Taking this into account, how reasonable is it to say that director Bendjelloul has been heavily assisted by his subject matter? Very unreasonable, I think, and here’s why.
Initially, we have to give credit to Bendjelloul for sourcing the story itself. If this were a widely known tale then its potency would be nullified by familiarity, but, prior to the release of the film, it definitely wasn’t. Had you ever heard of Rodriguez before becoming aware of the film? Probably not, and if you were, you occupy a very small minority. Often these types of documentaries have their roots in newspaper articles, but this one was seeded in a far more interesting way. Having worked in Swedish television for a number of years, Bendjelloul quit his job and went travelling in Africa with his video camera, searching out stories to film. He eventually made his way to Cape Town where he met Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (one of the main personalities in the documentary), who divulged to him the entire story about his personal mission to locate the mythical Rodriguez. That in itself is an interesting little anecdote, and it makes the production of Searching for Sugar Man that bit more organic.
Secondly, we need to consider the actual production of the film. Having located the story itself, Bendjelloul must have felt like he had struck gold, but the process was a long way from complete. The logistics themselves were somewhat of a nightmare. After returning to Sweden, the director was given financing for a one-month trip to South Africa to record interviews with the relevant parties. He presumed that these would merely act as source materials, and that he would conduct secondary interviews further down the road, but this hit a snag when his funding for a second trip fell through. His solution was to forge on with what he had already acquired, as well as trying to secure some on-camera time with Rodriguez himself. To plug the gaps he started looking for archive footage which, when combined with the editing process, was a sizeable task. “It was one month of filming in the beginning and then it was a thousand days of editing,” was how Bendjelloul described the production to Hollywood Reporter journalist Scott Feinberg.
Not only is a three-year editing venture a commendable quest on its own, but when you take into account the relative lack of material available, alongside the complex nature of the story, this was going to take some serious effort from the filmmaker. Let’s momentarily put ourselves in Bendjelloul’s shoes, how do you tell this story? The archive footage – usually preferable in documentaries, at least as opposed to talking heads and recreations – is seriously limited, and your interviews were cut off by a shortage of funds. A further issue can be found in the present day interviews with Rodriguez. Not only is your protagonist camera-shy, but if you play that card early your spoil the potential surprise element, i.e. him still being alive, so you need to leave that out until at least the halfway mark. The solution, or at least Bendjelloul’s solution, is to try to make Citizen Kane. This may seem like a slightly basic ideal (who wouldn’t want to emulate cinema’s magnum opus?) but structurally it’s a stroke of genius. The film opens with people trying to figure out what happened to a man they once vaguely knew, then ventures into the past to explore that history, and then finds a present day answer. Rodriguez, himself, is Rosebud. Come to think of it, isn’t that also almost exactly the plot of Lawrence of Arabia? Clearly Bendjelloul’s inspirations were of the highest possible quality. This effort to make his film like Citizen Kane pays off in droves. Structurally, Searching for Sugar Man is flawless; it hits all the right emotional buttons exactly when necessary, and the audience’s reaction is euphoric.
Finally, I’d like to address one issue that several moderately dissenting voices have raised, is Searching for Sugar Man the whole story? A quick Google search will reveal that, no, it isn’t. The truth of the matter is that Rodriguez had further success not mentioned in the film. He was also big in Australia in the 1970s, and became aware enough of his fame to tour there throughout 1979 and 1980. Rebecca L. Stewart, writing for Australian publication The Vine, referred to the film as ‘myth-making’. While I wouldn’t take issue with that, I actually think it’s quite a positive turn of phrase, she also asks if “Searching For Sugar Man is a lazy bit of filmmaking,” which I do take issue with. Call it inaccurate, call it dishonest, but I think the process discussed above proves that it is anything but lazy. The ethics of this decision to leave out the Australia chapter of Rodriguez’s tale out are worthy of discussion, though I won’t be doing that here, but I’d like to look at this fact from another perspective. By leaving out this side to the story, Bendjelloul has crafted a heightened sense of dramatic revelation and emotional weight that otherwise would not have been present. Is that good documentary-making? Not necessarily. Is it good filmmaking? Absolutely.
While we may question Bendjelloul’s fidelity to his subject’s story, and whether that impacts on the quality of his film, there’s no doubting that Searching for Sugar Man is the culmination of hard work and clever filmmaking. I think this film proves that, no matter how strong your source material may be, the creation process can be just as hard, if not harder, than any other project. Sourcing his story by chance, a complete lack of funds, a Citizen Kane ideal, three years of editing; it all adds up. But it was worth it, the Oscar win was richly deserved.
Could we call Searching for Sugar Man the Citizen Kane of documentaries? Perhaps not quite yet, that might take several decades of critical discussion, but you never know what the future holds.
Listen to ‘Cause’ by Rodriguez below.